The union is mourning the loss of retired SIU Assistant Vice President Chester “Chet” Wheeler, who passed away March 10 in California at age 77. He had had been battling cancer.
Wheeler retired in 2019, following 22 years of service as an official. Previously, he sailed with the union for 32 years, beginning in the mid-1960s, mostly as a civil service mariner with MSC.
SIU Vice President Government Services Nicholas Celona stated, “Chet was absolutely tireless in his work on behalf of the membership. He set a high standard and consistently did a great job handling issues in an often-complex sector of the industry. He will be missed.”
SIU Assistant Vice President Government Services Joe Vincenzo said Wheeler “was a friend who made a real difference in the lives of CIVMARS. Whether in the everyday routine of handling premium pay disputes or sorting through pending disciplinary matters to make life a little easier for our mariners, his impact can hardly be overstated. It was a privilege to observe him up close and personal and to accompany him servicing ships up at the Navy base in Bremerton, Washington, and to work with him on issues of consequence both abroad and right here at home.”
Wheeler came ashore to work for the union in 1997, first as a representative and soon thereafter as an assistant vice president. Prior to the SIU’s merger with the National Maritime Union in 2001, he handled all West Coast representational efforts for MSC and the Suisun Bay reserve fleet. In fact, since 1997, Wheeler was involved in every MSC and Suisun Bay contract negotiation and “instruction and policy” negotiation until he retired.
Colleagues described him as instrumental in ensuring the safety and health of mariners by negotiating afloat and ashore habitability agreements, watch hours, standards for shipboard water potability and air quality, and shipyard working conditions. He was a guiding force in the three-year negotiation of Civilian Mariner Personnel Instruction (CMPI) 610, a key document covering hours of work and overtime pay. Wheeler also played leading roles in representing mariners aboard joint high-speed vessels, and in securing significant compensatory time for travel for many CIVMARS.
Retired SIU Counsel Deborah Kleinberg, who was a close friend and worked with Wheeler day-to-day for 22 years, noted, “Chet was a beloved husband, father and grandfather. Chet’s life was filled with purpose and the desire to be of service. He was a natural teacher and shared his vast knowledge freely. In his personal life, and over the course of his career, he helped many thousands of people. His legacy will be how he aided people through their most difficult times, his incredible generosity, integrity, and most of all, loyalty to his family, friends, and the mariners he represented throughout his lifetime and the SIU.”
Upon his retirement, Wheeler offered the following advice for those entering the industry: “Get as much out of it as you can. It’s an adventure; make this your adventure. The other thing is, learn everything you can. We have a great school (the union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education). Look out for your fellow shipmates. It’s a wonderful occupation and I’m really glad I did it.”
Donations in Wheeler’s memory may be made to:
Hospice Services of Lake County
1862 Parallel Drive
Lakeport, California 95453